Atheism Unhinged, a chapter from “Is Atheism Dead?”
December 10, 2021
This is Chapter 28, “Atheism Unhinged” from my book IS ATHEISM DEAD?
There are those who take on the moniker “atheist,” but wear it lightly, principally because they are unaware of the absurdity such a philosophy expresses, or because they don’t have the courage to say otherwise and gingerly accept the label. Such souls are usually more accurately described as agnostics but are often afraid that calling themselves agnostics might show too much sympathy for those they think of as religious fanatics.
Many of these so-called “atheists” prove the weakness of their claim to the title because they say things that sound wonderfully reasonable and therefore betray them as agnostics. For example, the paleontologist and evolutionary advocate Stephen Jay Gould had the wisdom and humility to declare: “Science simply cannot adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature.” In other words, he saw the logical limits of science and admitted them, knowing that if there actually were a God, science would not be able to tell us much about him.
But those who are militant in their atheism paper over such logical inadequacies. They not only cannot see that science has limits, but preposterously claim that science is our only way of “knowing” anything, and further claim that the material world to which science has access is all that exists. That’s like saying that because our eyes cannot smell or taste, there is no such thing as aroma or food. It is of course perfectly circular and silly. They say that science can only access the material world, and yet declare with the impossibility of evidence that the material world is all that has ever existed—or can or will exist.
Hitchens was among the loudest of these and often maintained that the scientific method and “evidence” were the only way to know anything. Hoping to land a wild blow against every “faith” and “religion” at once, he often declared: “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” This aphorism was repeated so often by his acolytes it came to be known as Hitchens’s Razor, catapulting him into the rare shaving orbit of such as William of Ockham. The difficulty with “Hitchens’s Razor” is that it unintentionally severs the metaphorical jugular of its eponymous author, since the idea that there is nothing beyond the material world has itself been “asserted without evidence,” and can therefore be summarily dismissed.
In the end it seems that the so-called New Atheists and angry and militant atheists have less in common with honest agnostics than with less intellectually respectable groups such as Satanists, who are obviously more animated by a hatred of the God they suspect exists—and the people who claim to follow him—than they are of anything more intellectually robust. They seem to want to pull out all the stops to defeat their theistic enemies and are unmoored by any sense of rationality or logic—or justice or fairness or universal respect for humanity—in how they execute their martial campaigns.
So we find them sometimes making statements that reveal as much, as when Hitchens once declared: “I’m not even an atheist, so much as I am an antitheist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief is positively harmful.”
He couldn’t bother to compare the relative harmfulness of “religion” to that of enforced atheism because this would be inconvenient to his point. It was a kind of game for him, and to someone for whom there is no ultimate reality, what else could it be? He had already told us what we needed to know to see this. The idea of truth was to him beside the point, since he didn’t believe in such a thing. That’s simply a fact, and while he might not have advertised it, since it would be bad for business, we can’t think he was unable to see it. So the rest of this quote, taken from his Letters to a Young Contrarian, is enlightening:
Reviewing the false claims of religion I do not wish, as some sentimental materialists affect to wish, that they were true. I do not envy believers their faith. I am relieved to think that the whole story is a sinister fairy tale; life would be miserable if what
the faithful affirmed was actually the case…There may be people who wish to live their lives under cradle-to-grave divine supervision, a permanent surveillance and monitoring. But I cannot imagine anything more horrible or grotesque.
It seems inconceivable that a man of Hitchens’s intellect could miss the implications of his sentences. How he writhes at the idea of God watching him as the most “horrible” and “grotesque” thing his strangely truncated imagination can fathom, and yet blithely blithers and blathers without a nod to the atheist regimes that have always done this and do this today, now even surveilling their subjects and prisoners with fabulous new technology stolen from the West or purchased from immoral Western companies whose names rhyme with Kugel, whom we must imagine would have fought hard to win the lucrative bids on manufacturing the gas chambers and crematoria of the Death Camps. Did Hitchens really imagine that a world devoid of religion would be a utopia, or did the examples from history of atheist regimes simply escape his attention in the moments he was formulating his quotable quotes? That as an adolescent he was taken with Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon tells us he was never unaware of the satanic horrors of atheist communism, only that at some point he was willing to overlook them.
In case we haven’t mentioned it, Hitchens was moving too fast ever to be very consistent, having the rare ability to proceed so hastily—whether in exhaling essays like smoke rings while under the influence of cigarettes and alcohol or in switching topics mid-soliloquy—and keep moving in a way that his audiences could never easily catch him in his self-contradictions or were too amused to care.
His rage at things seems to have also fueled him, as though he were running from something in his subconscious too ghastly to be borne and must keep moving, even at the cost of self-contradiction. In fact, it is his static sense of rage and umbrage and his endlessly affecting this posture that are the only immutable and consistent aspects of his careering persona. Those familiar with his life will see a pattern. When it suited him to be a Labourite he was a Labourite, and when it suited him to declare himself a Trotskyite he did. During this early period he was of course bravely bisexual and courageously and fashionably “anti-Vietnam” and “anti-racist,” and then anti-Reagan, but his habit of switching vehicles as often as possible in his escape from whatever was chasing him led him to write screeds against the Clintons and then against (of all people) Mother Teresa, whom he called “the ghoul of Calcutta” for her unpardonable crime of living in poverty and caring for the dying poor among the slums of her adopted city. Hitchens also said that Billy Graham went into the ministry “to make money,” as though the man who in his nonstop writing was not beating the bushes for ha’pennies in doing so. After 9/11, he came out as unreservedly supporting the Iraq War, gigging his former leftist friends as he did so, until he finally wriggled from this last cocoon and flew to his grave in the form of an atheist butterfly who denounced all religions equally, which made as much sense as the man who hates all ideas equally. He once said: “I think religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred, and contempt, and I claim that right.” One can no longer ask, “Yes, but what do you mean by religion exactly?” because the man who threw the Wiffle ball of that statement has himself fluttered away to another dimension (although of course he would have argued that he hadn’t, since none can be scientifically proven to exist).
While inevitably extremely less entertaining, Hitchens’s fellow New Atheists nonetheless offered dramatically similar logic-free bouquets of pique. Richard Dawkins said, “I am utterly fed up with the respect we have been brainwashed into bestowing upon religion.”5 Sam Harris declared his intention to “demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms.”6 Are they unaware that Hitler and Himmler and Stalin and Pol Pot and Mao and Ceaușescu had similar ambitions, or wouldn’t that matter?
But the frenzied anger the New Atheists have employed in denouncing those on the other side cannot help but lead to the very real demonization of their enemies—and what could be more logical? Once you have thrown away the very things given to you by the faith you have poured out with the bathwater—things like civility and respecting others and trying to move toward some actual truth—you are yourself at the mercy of the demons you have unleashed, and whether these legions are metaphorical we must leave to the careful reader.
The unbridled fury on display was hardly ever well-disguised as having a larger purpose than to provoke in their audiences a similar fury at their enemies. But such fury in the hands of those who have excommunicated transcendent values has nothing through which to channel the blood of their enemies, which must eventually run. Their ideological forebears are found among the French Revolutionists, who in the name of liberté, égalité, and fraternité slaughtered their opponents like dogs in the street as the mobs roared for more, and who preserved their greatest ire for priests and nuns. Who but the very Devil of Hell could be behind something like that? And if not him, then who? Nominations remain open. But one must wonder: What could cause people to espouse such anodyne values as this French motto publicly and vocally while they butchered innocents? What has history made of that, other than to whitewash it and let it take on newer forms in the Bolshevik Revolution and the Stalinist purges and the Chinese Communist Revolution and the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge?
It says much that Hitchens and Dawkins could sufficiently blind themselves to the inevitable course of their calls to arms or would open themselves and their indisputably fine minds to the service of what look like violent spiritual forces. The so-called New Atheists often used the excuse of the 9/11 attacks by Islamic madmen to launch their fusillades against all religions—and therefore sometimes against the very things attacked in those attacks, the religious and moral foundations of a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Of course, those are the words from Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, and who can imagine what he or Washington might have made of these preening British pamphleteers railing against the God who commanded his followers to “Love your enemies.” Lincoln ended his immortal address with the following words:
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall
not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
It’s hard not to see the New Atheists sneering at the humble railsplitter’s words, having already established that the God of whom he spoke does not exist. But the idea that they would put faith in Lincoln’s God on equal footing with faith in the entity for whom the men flew those planes into buildings is the sort of nonsense that can never be made sense of by anyone wishing to make sense. And of course, quite sadly, it is in their calculated demonization of those with whom they differ that the New Atheists most resemble the 9/11 hijackers and other villains, recent and distant. Hitler’s demonization of the Jews could not rest on any substantial intellectual foundations, but it didn’t need to. He had enough power to render those with whom he disagreed or merely disliked into soap and ashes, for he never pretended to believe in naive notions such as “the equality of man” or “the dignity of the individual.” He would use these ideas when it suited his purposes, would speak of the “nobility of the German worker” as long as it served his ends, and would then send those workers to their deaths with the same indifference that another man tied a shoe. Using human beings as cannon fodder in the services of his greater purposes was consonant with his atheist worldview. There was no transcendence and no good or evil, only power, and he wanted it for himself. Did Hitchens and Dawkins never consider how suspiciously they resembled these villains in their own reckless campaign?
Dawkins himself wrote:
My last vestige of “hands off religion” respect disappeared in the smoke and choking dust of September 11, 2001, followed by the “National Day of Prayer” when prelates and pastors did their tremulous Martin Luther King impersonation and used people of mutually incompatible faiths to hold hands, united in homage to the very force that caused the problem in the first place.
Where to begin in unscrambling this egg? Dawkins doesn’t trouble himself to consider whether those motivated to murder their ideological enemies are in any way different than Jesus, who forgave his murderers. But what is chilling about their cult of nothingness is that they seem to have been willing to say nearly anything in the service of it, to throw those who beheaded Arab Christians in orange jumpsuits by the seashore and those who believe in drowning their enemies in cages and throwing men off roofs in the very same category as the Amish who publicly forgave the madman who murdered their girls, and as the African American Christians in Charleston, South Carolina, who publicly forgave the young white man who murdered their friends and family members in a Bible study after they had prayed and shown him kindness. How is it that the dedicatedly persistent sloppiness of this superlatively monstrous position bellowed by these men with innumerable academic degrees and honors can be seen as anything but a kind of madness?
Although one needn’t be apoplectic with indignation to spout such sentiments. The musician John Lennon was very far from the venomous hissing of the New Atheists, but the banal lyrics wedded to his movingly melodic song “Imagine” are nonetheless every bit as dull as Hitchens’s Razor. Though the song is infinitely more pleasant to hear than the spittle-flecked jeremiads of the New Atheists, the general idea is the same: that if only we could do away with religion our problems would be solved.
But one never gets to ask, “then what?” It is not an unimportant question. Most students of history know that when you destroy something it may be replaced by something considerably worse. Those who got rid of the Tsarist regime had no idea that Lenin and then Stalin would usher in a nightmare that would make the Tsarist world look like very Heaven. It may be that the New Atheists’ moment in the sun has so faded in recent years because once they had taken every conceivable potshot at everything they hated several times over, they simply ran out of things to say. They found themselves in the awkward position of the dog who has caught the car, and then slunk away embarrassed, having never formulated any particular plans for the car once he’d caught it.
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